A Montgomery County judge has dismissed all criminal charges against Robert Clark Jr., the Willow Grove film-school founder who had been accused of indecent assault.
Senior Judge Lawrence A. Brown Jr. concluded that Clark's practice of spanking male students on their birthdays was "foolish" and a "hazing ritual," but not criminal. He made the decision after reviewing the transcript from a preliminary hearing held Aug. 20.
"But foolish is one thing," Brown wrote in his eight-page opinion. "Criminality is quite another."
Brown signed an order Wednesday granting Clark's request to dismiss all 48 counts charging him with indecent assault, corruption of minors, simple assault, harassment, false imprisonment, and unlawful restraint.
Clark, 61, said yesterday that he was relieved by the judge's decision and planned to return to teaching students at the school, Cinekyd, next week.
"It's glorious to have this behind me," Clark said. "I've learned patience because the legal process moves so slowly."
He said he was fortunate to have so much support from the school community while he fought the criminal charges. Twenty-five supporters showed up at his last court appearance, Feb. 4. About 80 students and parents attended the preliminary hearing.
Assistant District Attorney Todd Stephens said prosecutors are weighing an appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court.
"We're taking a look at the transcripts and the applicable law," Stephens said. "The analysis is whether Judge Brown's analysis was correct under the law."
Clark is executive director of Cinekyd, a school for children ages 7 to 17, who want to learn about radio, television and film. The school is in the Willow Grove section of Upper Moreland.
Criminal charges filed in July stemmed from a complaint by a student about a practice that had been going on for years. Eight current and former students, between the ages of 10 and 17, accused Clark of kissing and spanking them.
Additional accusers came forward, but some charges were dropped after several students testified at the preliminary hearing that they did not believe the spankings were meant to be harmful.
In his opinion, the judge said "the practice was to place the boy over [Clark's] knee, lower his trousers and spank him with his open hand and his underwear in place. Sometimes these spankings took place with the trousers up."
The spankings, Brown ruled, occurred in the presence of other students and were looked upon as a joke, or a "sort of rite of passage." The boys involved in the spankings ranged from age 10 to 15.
Clark said yesterday that the birthday spankings ended in 1995.
One boy testified at the preliminary hearing that the spanking hurt and reddened his buttocks. None complained of being injured, and one student said he was ashamed of the spanking, but participated because he liked the school and wanted to stay, Brown said.
"Given the world we live in these days, with claims of harassment of one kind or another being reported in newspapers almost daily, the best thing that can be said about the defendant's conduct is that it was foolish," Brown wrote in his ruling. "More in keeping with the puerile conduct expected of children rather than the teacher."
As to the charges of indecent assault, Brown found that there was no evidence to suggest that the hazing had any "sadomasochistic" element to it.
"Given the openness with which it is carried out, and the absence of any evidence that Clark received any prurient sadistic pleasure from it, we can find no indecent contact," Brown wrote.
Frank DeSimone, Clark's attorney, said that even the boys prosecutors considered victims thought Clark a "mentor" and "grandfatherly."
"Thank God we had a judge that had some courage and some sense and didn't waste the taxpayers' money anymore," DeSimone said.
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